Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, July 10, 2015

PLATO: The Republic (Three Kinds of Good)

Is reading Aristotle’s On Tragedy a waste of time for the modern reader or is it time well spent?  Like many Great Books selections the answer depends on who’s doing the reading and what we’re looking for.  If we’re looking for criteria to evaluate dramatic arts we can find it.  But Aristotle’s essay is more than a mere technical treatise on evaluating dramatic arts.  He says things like “A well-constructed (good) plot must not begin or end at any random point… a good man must not be shown as passing from happiness to misfortune… All the characters should be good.”  What is this “good” he keeps talking about?  Evidently Aristotle doesn’t just want to teach us about poetry.  He also wants to elevate our souls.  He wants us to consider the fundamental question concerning what is good and what is not good.  By clarifying this distinction in poetry we become habituated to making distinctions to apply in everyday life. 

Plato is doing something similar in this selection taken from The Republic.  Socrates is discussing the nature of justice with a group of young men.  He wants to persuade them that being good is better than being bad; that it’s better to be just than to be unjust.  But like many young men these guys are sharp and want to challenge authority.  They want Socrates to prove it.  Glaucon asks him “do you want to seem to have persuaded us, or truly to persuade us, that it is in every way better to be just than unjust?”  Being Socrates, he doesn’t want to steamroll boys with abstract arguments; he wants them to learn to think for themselves and in the process stretch and maybe even elevate their souls.  So Glaucon lays out what he sees as three forms of “good.” 

The first form of good is neutral.  Glaucon says “we delight in it for its own sake; such as enjoyment and all the pleasures which are harmless and leave no after effects other than the enjoyment in having them.”  What does he mean by “pleasures which are harmless”?  Listening to music?  Going to movies?  Are those harmless activities?  Socrates doesn’t think so.  In his opinion music and drama (and poetry) are far from harmless.  In some cases they do major damage to the soul.  Glaucon probably means things like watching a sunset, playing with a pet, or sitting in a rocking chair whittling on a stick.  These are things that don’t really accomplish much.  But we do them and take pleasure in them without suffering any bad side effects.  The second form of good includes all those things we do with specific ends or purpose in mind.  Glaucon claims that with this kind of good “we like it both for its own sake and for what comes out of it, such as thinking and seeing and being healthy.”  We think so we can understand better.  We see so we can know what’s out there.  We want to be healthy so we can do things like think clearly and look at art and read Great Books.  It’s interesting how often we take this class of good for granted.  Very few of us stop to think and say to ourselves, I’m thinking right now.  And unless we’ve had eye problems we rarely stop and say, wow, I can see.  And until we get sick we don’t normally appreciate what a good it is to be healthy.  Most of the time most of us just think and see and go around being healthy without really being aware we’re doing anything at all.  So it’s the third form of good which is really the most important.  These are things we consciously choose to do; not for their own sakes but in order to get something else in return.  Glaucon says “we would not voluntarily choose to have them for themselves except for the sake of the wages or whatever else results from them.”  Most of us wouldn’t work if we didn’t get paid.  Most of us wouldn’t exercise or go on a diet if it didn’t make us healthier.  This results in what Aristotle calls Character.  He says “Character is what makes us ascribe certain moral qualities to the agents.”  The decision to do one thing instead of another makes us who we are.  Without realizing it Glaucon is already thinking like a philosopher.  Socrates hopes it will also elevate his soul because the world desperately needs more good teachers and philosophers.


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